Why Mariah Carey Is The Best Thing To Happen To “Idol” Since Simon Cowell

July 30, 2012  |  

Was it just me, or did the news of Mariah Carey’s selection as a Season 12 “American Idol” judge send music fans into a frenzy last week?  It seemed that those who’d abandoned the show after Fantasia’s final shoulder shrug will set their DVRs for the show’s season premiere in January. Anyone who owned a radio in the 1990s could not escape Carey’s reign as a beckoning pop princess, and it’s not unwarranted that the public is excited about Carey’s stint at the Idol judge’s panel. She’s got more than a pair of ears that know “pitchy” when they hear it; Carey is standing before a generation of aspirants who know her as a singer’s singer, a formidable icon whose technical prowess and vocal calisthenics (a vocal range that’s said to range between five and seven octaves, the ability to sing what the New York Times once called  “a rich, husky alto to dog-whistle high notes”) have driven her songs to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart eighteen times since her 1990 debut.

Different from her vocal and generational peers, namely Whitney Houston and Celine Dion, women whose balladry and sheen also ruled the 1990s music charts, few know that Carey often has considered her pipes a secondary mode of expression. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2006, Carey noted that “even writing a melody [is] a release. And I really have a need to express myself.”

Scan the liner notes to any one of Carey’s 13 studio albums (including “Glitter,” the ill-fated soundtrack to the film in which Carey starred) and you’ll find that she has a hand in writing and producing most of the songs to which she lends her voice.

“I can’t imagine just having someone hand me a song and saying, ‘Okay, sing this and put it on your album and then leave and go home,’” Carey, who will be recognized with a BMI songwriting award in September, said in 1993. “I feel like I have this inside me that I love writing songs, I love contributing to what I’m singing.”

Carey’s hiring as an Idol judge is a departure from the panels of the singing competition’s past. Take Paula Abdul, a judge for seasons one through eight and an artist whose 1980’s pop stardom was fueled primarily by her stature as that era’s must-have choreographer and the marketability of her music to teenage girls who also loved to dance. Kara Dioguardi’s turn on seasons eight and nine of Idol was justified by her career in the recording industry, as both a songwriter for such acts as Pink and Christina Aguilera, but also as a music publishing executive. Still, she was not known as a singer. Nor was Ellen Degeneres, also of season nine, who, God love her, likes to listen to music, dance to it of course, and that’s about it.

And then there was Jennifer Lopez, season 10 and 11 judge and the most recent to leave the panel along with Steven Tyler, a respected rock god and likely the only Idol judge whose credits as a writer, performer, and cultural influence are comparable to Carey’s.  Lopez is hardly a technical vocalist. Instead she offers, as Gerrick D. Kennedy wrote for the LA Times Blog, a total package: a triumvirate of acting chops with a fly-girl forte for dance and a singing career that’s somehow sustained by the hairs of her ability to command our attention. We can’t keep our eyes off of her. Kennedy notes:

That was always Lopez’s strength — she had the catchiest hooks, the edgiest looks and the best videos –- and she offered [Idol hopefuls] plenty of solid advice about harnessing that stage presence, often more deftly than her male counterparts.

Remember 2001’s “I’m Real”? Lopez’s venerable hit with rapper Ja Rule was a marriage of the now-requisite soul sample and sugary rhythmic vocals sharing a duet-like interchange with the interjections of the hip-hop somebody of the day. Lest we forget: Carey did it first.

In 1995, no one could escape the base line of the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” when it was repackaged for Carey’s “Fantasy,” the song with a video for every girl who wore cutoffs for boardwalk roller blading and aspired to using the physics of a rollercoaster for a full-on wind machine effect. And then, when ODB growled “Yo, New York in da house, it’s Brooklyn in the house…” on the Fantasy remix, nightclubs and skating rinks around the country went apes**t. And so continued the fusion of hip-hop and R&B through Carey’s career (including  “Breakdown” with Bone Thugs-n-Harmony from 1997’s “Butterfly” album and 1999’s “Heartbreaker” with Jay-Z from the album “Rainbow”) and throughout hip-hop/R&B music as we would know it, a likely paradigm shift that left much of today’s popular R&B with a hip-hop verse.

Will I be watching the upcoming season of “American Idol”? Yes. Every week. And I’m expecting Twitter anecdotes about Carey’s likelihood to teach contestants the art of hand flailing and the science of pushing your earpiece in when you hit the squeal notes.  Critics can say what they will about Carey’s bombs of glitter, fluttering butterflies, and fleeting daydreams, but she brings just what the show and its young singers need: the wisdom of one who knows how to just stand in front of a mic and sing.

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